In Lee Weissman’s newly religious days, he carried his truth like a holy sledgehammer, he says, wielding it against unreceptive family and friends.
“I think a lot of people go through a phase of feeling like they’ve suddenly discovered the truth and they need to beat everybody over the head with it,” says the American rabbi and interfaith educator.
“Certainly, on Twitter you will find many of those people, because that’s the fastest way to beat people over the head.”
But the proselytising and partisan nature of Twitter hasn’t stopped Rabbi Weissman from engaging online — quite the opposite.
In the past decade, he’s become a prolific tweeter — known online as the “Jihadi Jew” — and amassed 38,000 followers.
Rabbi Weissman is part of a growing number of “religious influencers”, persons of faith sharing their spirituality, and sometimes modest style, online.
How to win followers and influence
According to Heidi Campbell, a professor of digital religion at Texas A&M University, social media users see their online identity as an extension of their real-life identity.
“I’m from the school of thought that a person’s identity and religious identity isn’t something they put on like a coat, it’s something that they embrace,” she says.
Professor Campbell, who’s studied online religious communication since the 1990s, says some users will consciously share their spirituality, rather than hide it, to avoid onlookers from speculating and making up stories.
“If you show inconsistency of your identity, your profile, then you lose authenticity,” she says.
Empowering hijabi Instagrammers
With an Instagram following of nearly 150,000, it could be said that Yasmin Jay wields a fair amount of influence.
Since starting her account at age 15, the hijabi-sporting Sydneysider has become known for modest fashion hacks and makeup tutorials.
While she prefers the term “blogger” to “influencer” — she views her Instagram feed as a “visual diary” — Ms Jay agrees that authenticity is what has helped her gain attention online.
“I blog my everyday life and when I travel or go to events, so it’s pretty much my platform to express myself,” she says.
And a good part of that expression centres on style. Like many Muslims, Ms Jay’s faith feeds into her fashion choices.
Ms Jay says the aim of her Instagram is to empower young, female Muslims to be proud of their spirituality and — if they choose to wear it — their hijab.
“Especially in the media, hijabi girls receive so much criticism,” she says.
“[I want to show] girls that me wearing the hijab does not stop me, it only empowers me and makes me want to push even more.”
Since starting the account, Ms Jay’s feed has morphed from a hobby into a part-time job, with brands asking her to collaborate on sponsored content. But she doesn’t see the monetisation of her online identity as being at odds with her faith.
Rather, she believes her exposure on social media challenges the idea that Islam oppresses women.
“We as a community have to stick together and raise awareness on the issue and really just empower each other,” she says.
When jihad meets Judaism
On Twitter, “Jihadi Jew” Rabbi Weissman is also trying to dismantle negative connotations associated with Islam.
He chose the attention-grabbing moniker because it reflects his own spiritual journey — “jihad” is Arabic for “struggle” or “striving” — and sparks conversations across faith communities.
“[Jihad] is a very powerful idea, and one that’s important also in Judaism, [although] it goes by other names,” he says.
“It’s the same concept: that we are spiritual creatures in a constant state of struggle with our own lower selves, and sometimes with the world around us, in a fight for justice.”
In adopting the term jihadi, and spreading a message of compassion, the Jewish rabbi found a new audience online.
He says most of his Twitter followers are young Muslims.
Tackling Twitter trolls with kindness
Rabbi Weissman’s social media experience hasn’t been devoid of difficulty. He still receives religiously vilifying messages, often from anonymous profiles.
But he’s come to view trolling as a chance to challenge and change people’s minds.
“When I’m trolled, I have the opportunity to show people how you deal with opposition in a way that’s kind and respectful,” he says.
“It almost always works.”
Rabbi Weissman says in his nearly 10 years of tweeting he’s had two “stalker trolls” who were hostile and threatening.
But in the end, he says both “came to their senses” and apologised for their behaviour.
The rabbi’s online connections don’t exist in a vacuum.
Several years ago, he announced to his digital following that he planned to go on a cross-country interfaith tour, posing the question: “Where should I go?”
“People arranged all sorts of things in their homes, synagogues, mosques,” says Rabbi Weissman.
“I got in the car and travelled place to place. I was a guest in people’s houses. It was all organised by people in my social media feed.”
It’s never about winning an argument
Interfaith work seems a natural fit for the rabbi, who was raised in a Jewish but “not particularly religious” household and began his spiritual quest after living in India.
“I did my PhD studies in South Asian studies and I lived in South India, in a Muslim neighbourhood,” he says.
“I was looking for a kind of spirituality that would allow me to have a family and bring a consciousness of God into everything that I did. And Judaism really fit the bill for me.”
It was later, teaching at a college in Irvine, California, that the rabbi faced his first experience of religious mediation: Jewish and Muslim students who clashed over Israel.
When he reached out to the students, he found they were able to connect and empathise, and his own dining table became a place for interfaith discussions.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, most of Rabbi Weissman’s interfaith discussions have been held in the digital space.
But whether it’s online or in real life, he takes his lead from the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a champion for interfaith dialogue.
“He said, if you’re not prepared to be changed by your encounter, then maybe you shouldn’t bother with it,” recalls Rabbi Weissman.
“The moment that a person’s goal is to win the conversation, all truth goes out the window.”
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